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BLOG: Defining purpose, values and priorities: where do college governors come in?

23 September 2020


Dr Jodie Pennacchia, University of Birmingham, Mary Kent, Independent Skills and Further Education Consultant, and Professor Ann-Marie Bathmaker, University of Birmingham, set out the potential opportunities for governors in a new vision for colleges.

Engaging with college governance is crucial to any debate about the work of colleges. Governance can be seen in operation at different levels: from the UK government and devolved governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales; to regions (for example West Midlands, Greater Manchester) as well as local – individual college - level. The Independent Commission on the College of the Future has a strong focus on the inter-relationship between national and regional governance structures in the four countries of the UK. At a local, institutional level, there are equally important issues to consider. This local level is the focus of an ESRC funded study The Processes and Practices of Governing in FE , which observed boards in action across 2019. In a recent project briefing paper, we explored the role of strategy and away days as an extension of the governing space, which provides opportunities for governors to explore issues in more depth. Mary Kent responded to this briefing, drawing on insights from her experiences as a Vice Principal and independent consultant to the FE sector working across England, Wales and Scotland. In this post we build on our conversation, highlighting the current national context in which governing happens and the challenges this poses, before offering suggestions for how effective governing at local level might be supported in this context.

Contextualising college governance: the complexity and volatility of policy and funding

The college sector in all four countries of the UK operates in a state of constant policy change. Sometimes located in government departments that are aligned with other educational provision - as now in England, where the sector is part of the Department for Education - it is at other times located in government departments more closely aligned with business and industry, as for example in Northern Ireland at the present time. Since the 1980s, there have been 48 different Secretaries of State responsible for colleges. In England alone, Norris and Adam (2017) cite 28 major pieces of legislation bearing on FE during this time. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland operate in an environment that is no less complex.

There is moreover continuing struggle over whether colleges are deemed to be public or private institutions, with major implications for the role of governors in individual colleges. In addition, there are differences across the four countries of the UK over payment for governors. Whilst governors and chairs are remunerated in Northern Ireland, and chairs are remunerated in Scotland, governors are unpaid in Wales and England.

Funding and inspection overshadow all the work of governors, with a formidable volume and complexity of aims and objectives placed upon colleges by funding criteria and inspection regimes. To give a tangible sense of what this means on the ground, the Education and Skills Funding Agency conditions of funding agreement for 2019/20 for colleges in England is 105 pages long, far more extensive than the equivalents for education institutions in other sectors, such as academy schools and universities. There are ten funding streams emanating from the UK’s Department for Education alone, and an individual college in England may have more than 20 funding streams, each with its own aims, funding criteria and set of measurables.

FE colleges are policed by regulatory bodies (Ofsted, Education and Skills Funding Agency, the FE Commissioner in England; Estyn in Wales; Scottish Funding Council and Education Scotland; and the Education Training Inspectorate in Northern Ireland) that generate a remarkably high stakes environment for college leaders and governors. As noted in a recent commentary by Ewart Keep, a bad Ofsted inspection often means the sacking of the senior management team. One consequence of this is that innovation becomes a very risky proposition, and college governors have a strong incentive to encourage the senior leadership to stick with tried and tested approaches rather than try out new ideas.

The work of governing in colleges: challenges for agreeing purpose, values and priorities

Against this backdrop of a complex and changeable policy and funding context, the annual cycle of business that most boards follow can be very full. The amount of material that needs to be covered in a single board meeting is usually considerable. In The Processes and Practices of Governing project, we have frequently observed board papers in excess of 200 pages accompanying lengthy boards meetings across colleges in all four nations. In interviews, Chairs and Clerks/Secretaries to governing bodies have spoken of the challenges of getting through all of this material in a timely manner, whilst giving sufficient time for discussion and debate.

We observed the particular challenges of this where a new and substantial item enters the college landscape, such as the introduction of the Office for Students in England. During one observed board meeting, a governor asked for college higher education recruitment data to be contextualised, to facilitate critical engagement by the board. He sought to understand whether the college was in competition with other providers to attract HE students, or whether the college was seen as the main local provider of higher education for the sorts of courses on offer. This is just one example of governors’ need for timely, succinct and contextualised data to inform discussions and decisions in busy meetings.

Given the complexity and policy volatility of this operating environment, it is not surprising that the sector and its institutions struggle to establish a secure, and more importantly a shared perception of their purpose, values and priorities. The existence of multiple and often divergent conceptions of the organisation are to be expected in further education. A commitment to education, to strong connections with the business community, to a civic role, and to ideals of equalising student opportunities, need to coexist with financial and survival imperatives. Arguments about which activities or groups of learners are prioritised over others within constrained budgets are understandably impassioned. Governors are no different in this respect. They bring valuable experience and perception to the role. They are often motivated by a specific passion – most attend on a voluntary basis after all; and like all of us, they carry unarticulated beliefs and unconscious biases about what a college is and how it should be managed and governed.

This in itself is no bad thing, and should be a recipe for a healthy, ongoing debate between the leaders of the organisation and its governors. Rather than positioning governors as involved in a confrontational process with college leadership, where they hold their college to account in an antagonistic way, we have seen how governors seek to be informed by evidence and seek also to engage in opportunities for debate and discussion, with the objective of arriving at a shared conception of the organisation and its current challenges, reached through compromise and negotiation. This process can provide a conceptual foundation on which to develop strategy.

In practice, however, the complexity and pace of change does not always allow a collective working equilibrium of understanding to be achieved. Governors do not have sufficient opportunity to process legislative and funding changes and to assimilate these into an effective shared working model of the organisation.

Governing colleges of the future: What do governors need to be able to work effectively?

The college of the future would benefit enormously from greater simplicity and stability. Far from preventing colleges from moving forward and embracing change, this would enable growth and openness to innovation. It would benefit not only governors, but also the individuals, communities and employers who also need to navigate the college system. However, this is easy to say, and more difficult to achieve. If college governing is to continue to operate in a volatile policy and funding context, a number of practical suggestions might be made for how the effectiveness of this work could be better supported.

Evidence from the Governing in FE project suggests a number of actions that may assist governors to engage effectively in this complex environment. Some of these were seen working in practice, others were requests for future action put forward by governors to aid them in their role:

  • The provision of headline information to preface reports so that governors can understand and focus on the key messages.
  • Greater contextualisation of data. This includes showing trends over time and regional and national comparisons so that governors can easily make sense of what issues are raised by the current data picture, including identifying successes as well as challenges.
  • Opportunities to understand and reflect on significant and emerging issues such as policy and regulatory shifts. On these occasions, briefings and opportunities for detailed discussion are valued by governors. Strategy events and away days are a feature of the governance space that aim to provide such opportunities, with an emphasis on understanding the college in its wider context. These events are important but not sufficient on their own. Furthermore, some governors felt these events would be more worthwhile if materials were received in advance, providing time for governors to read carefully, digest information, and consider how their own views, experiences and expertise may relate to issues, to maximise the value of their contribution during the event.
  • Invitations to spend time seeing aspects of the college and engaging with learners, including diverse events from college celebrations to learning walks.
  • Production of a single, standardised document articulating the colleges’ position and priorities. The Regional Outcome Agreements used in Scotland have received criticism for their short-term outlook and emphasis on volume targets, however, these Agreements do offer an accessible single perspective on each college. The documents are produced annually and begin with setting the demographic and labour market context; then move on to the curriculum plan and an overview of priorities and performance indicators (for example quality, progression, satisfaction, and social inclusion measures); they include specific projects such as estates developments; and then link to national priorities and updates relating to emerging legislation e.g. GDPR and cyber resilience.

We’re asking a lot from our governors. The need to ‘educate’ them to this extent is symptomatic of a sector that suffers from a poorly defined self-image, which sits at the receiving end of frequent political impulses. Scotland’s Cumberford-Little Report recommends that ministers endorse a new narrative for colleges in the 21st century, prioritising a ‘transparent and accessible performance regime’ with multi-year guidance from ministers.

This implies the need for an improved consensus of purpose and priorities for colleges, that can be agreed and articulated between policy-makers, funders and colleges themselves, and is sufficiently robust to act as an operating framework over multiple years.

This process could form a valuable dialogue toward the goal of creating a better-defined college sector, which would benefit a wide range of stakeholders; but not least, it would provide governors with the map and compass needed to perform their important roles, overseeing performance measures over time and against established and balanced, agreed objectives.

The Processes and Practices of Governing in Further Education Colleges in the UK Project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (reference ES/R00322X/1). The overarching aim of the project is to examine how governing boards in further education colleges across the UK contribute to achieving the strategic aims of colleges in meeting the needs of learners, employers and labour markets.